Steve Connor: A ban on the trading of live exotic birds is long overdue

Events last night have demonstrated that the dead parrot may have not provided such unequivocal proof of anything other than it caught the disease while in "quarantine". Dr Reynolds and others in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) must now contemplate the prospect that the quarantine system has not stopped infected birds getting into Britain but may have aided the spread of the virus.

It is now almost certain that the parrot in question did not contract the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu while it was in Surinam, a former Dutch colony in South America. There have been no reports of the H5N1 strain of bird flu in Surinam, nor indeed in any other country in South America.

It is far more likely that the parrot picked up the virus while it spent the last month of its life in the quarantine facility, which it shared with more than 200 birds from Taiwan, where the H5N1 strain has already struck. It is now likely that the H5N1 virus was being carried by some or all of these Taiwanese birds, and that it was merely fortuitous that somebody spotted an obviously sick South American parrot which led them to investigate further.

Because both consignments of birds - the one from South America and the one from Taiwan - shared the same air space in the quarantine facility, officials decided to cull the lot rather than risk letting this deadly strain of avian flu into the country.

One must, however, now ask how many previous consignments of Asian birds have been brought into this country before this outbreak was detected, and can these pets be traced?

It is possible that some species of bird are more prone to the H5N1 virus than others. In other words, the Surinamese parrot may have shown more obvious symptoms, or shown them earlier in the course of being infected, than the species brought in from Taiwan.

The parrot in the quarantine facility may have acted like the well-known canary in the coal mine, warning of imminent danger. In this case the parrot's sickness warned officials about the possible presence of H5N1 in the Taiwanese birds, which may have been relatively healthy carriers showing no obvious symptoms of avian flu.

Defra said initially that none of the Taiwanese birds showed symptoms of bird flu, and a decision to cull them was taken merely as a precautionary measure. Late last night - everything seems to happen late with Defra - it emerged thatsome of the Taiwanese birds did die, but nobody seems to be sure what from.

It has also emerged that Defra is now testing tissue samples from the Taiwanese birds, a fact that was apparently impossible to validate for most of yesterday when The Independent made repeated enquiries. Defra also claimed last night that all birds in quarantine are tested for bird flu - but are they all tested for H5N1?

If any immediate lessons are to be learnt from this situation it must be that a ban on the abhorrent trade in live exotic birds is long overdue. The other lesson is that government officials should perhaps refrain from making bold statements about something working when the evidence could just as easily point to the reverse.